By Elizabeth Drumm
Anxiety is something all humans experience at different times throughout life. We all know how unpleasant it feels to be worried about something, and watching children grapple with fear and anxiety can leave parents feeling frustrated or helpless in their efforts to be supportive.
Although there are many strategies for tackling anxiety, it can help to keep a few key principles in mind:
1. Know the difference between fear and anxiety.
Fear and anxiety are uncomfortable emotions for people of any age. When we're faced with an immediate danger, such as a threat to our safety, that feeling is called fear. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a response to a possible future threat rather than a clear and present danger. Anxiety is ruminating on "what if..." and worrying about things that might happen. Because there is no true danger, as there is with fear, anxiety can be described as a "false alarm" response and often brings with it some classic symptoms of worry, such as otherwise unexplained stomach aches, insomnia, nervousness and avoidance of specific situations, items or activities. Fear generally resolves itself when the danger in a situation has passed, but anxiety persists even when a threat is not present, so it requires a different approach to alleviate and is something parents must keep in mind.
2. Recognize when fear and anxiety are problems, and when they are not.
Although it's uncomfortable in the moment, fear is an important adaptive response. For example, it is adaptive for children to be fearful of oncoming cars when they are crossing the street. Cars are a clear danger in that situation, and fear is adaptive for safety's sake. Anxiety can also be a positive motivator to perform. Students who worry that they might misspell words on a spelling test later in the week may be more likely to study in order to alleviate that anxiety. Anxiety becomes a problem, however, when it disrupts a child or family's normal functioning. It would be appropriate for a child to fear a swarm of bees that she unexpectedly stumbles upon, but when a child is so worried about bees that she avoids venturing outside because there might be one present, that is anxiety impacting functioning. Important to note is that some fears are developmentally appropriate, such as when toddlers are afraid of things like loud noises or faces they don't recognize, so it can be useful to use same-age peers for comparison when determining which worries may be typical and which may warrant concern.
3. Harness the power of consistent approach.
Parents can have a huge impact on how their children handle anxiety, for better and for worse. Taking a critical look at the child's daily routine and working to make it consistent can have an enormous positive effect (e.g. eating dinner at the same time each night, going through a predictable bedtime routine and ensuring enough hours of sleep). Anxiety is worrying about what might happen, so if other elements of a child's life can be made more predictable and consistent, that can be a major source of comfort in a very unpredictable world. Parents can also commit to approaching the anxiety as an external force acting upon the child rather than an inherent trait. Instead of the parent becoming frustrated with the worried child, both parent and child can direct their frustration at a common enemy, visualizing the anxiety as a character (like a "worry monster") or simply as "worry thoughts." When the child is feeling anxious, the parent and child can tackle the worry thoughts or worry creature together, seeing it as an external force, and unite to learn more about it, discover how it operates and fight the anxiety as a team. This empowers the child to face his worries with support rather than feel ashamed for having them at all.
4. Intervene using a cognitive-behavioral lens.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a powerful, research-supported approach for addressing anxiety issues in counseling, but the theory behind it can be successfully applied by parents outside of a therapeutic setting. The idea is that thoughts influence behaviors, behaviors influence feelings, feelings influence thoughts and the whole cycle continues forwards and backwards, often without us even realizing. Parents can look at this cycle as a circle and intervene wherever they see the anxiety playing out in their children. Is the anxiety most apparent in the "feelings" part of the cycle, and the child experiences physical symptoms, like rapid breathing and stomachaches? He may benefit from learning relaxation techniques, breathing exercises or mindfulness practices. Or does the anxiety show up more in the "thoughts" part of the cycle, perhaps in the form of catastrophic thinking where the child always assumes the worst will happen? This type of anxiety may be best tackled by teaching the child to recognize cognitive distortions, or "thinking traps" that she frequently falls into, and teaching strategies to talk herself out of them. Or does the anxiety appear more often in the child's behaviors, such as when he avoids certain activities, such as riding in an elevator? In this case the parent should consider finding ways to work up to a goal in progressive stages, starting small and increasing the challenge gradually so that the child faces his fear of elevators rather than enabling him to continue to avoid it.
5. Keep momentum going.
Once a child begins to chip away at anxiety, it's important to keep the momentum going. It can and should be a slow but steady process; expecting a child to abandon anxiety more quickly than is reasonable is a sure way to discourage the child and hinder progress. Instead, start small, progressively exposing her to more challenging things, tracking progress as you go. The act of keeping a log can be helpful in itself. This log might look like a calendar where the child rates his or her anxiety on a scale from 1 to 10, three times daily, for example. The child may be surprised to look back at the log and see that the anxiety ratings reveal that he is not anxious as often as he imagined, or that the ratings decrease over time. Or the log may take the form of a sticker chart visually depicting the anxious moments the child has successfully worked through. No matter the format, a tracking method that the child understands can be a great way to celebrate progress and build self-confidence. Even if the child is unsuccessful at a particular task, be sure to give praise for demonstrating the positive (genuine attempts as using the coping skills that he or she is working on) and ignore the negative (tantrums, avoidance and other anxiety symptoms). Ensure the child continues to face situations that trigger anxiety, modifying them if needed rather than avoiding them altogether, to be sure that the progress made is not lost. Finally, don't forget to celebrate even small victories against the worries!
Although parents can be invaluable sources of support to their children navigating anxiety, they are wise to seek out extra resources if the anxiety's duration, severity, suffering or disruption to family life becomes increasingly difficult to manage. Pediatricians and school counselors can provide guidance on available community resources, such as parent education opportunities or clinical counseling professionals who can provide consultations or counseling services as needed. Regardless of the path taken, when parents find ways for their children to face anxiety successfully, they are providing an invaluable opportunity for their children feel the satisfaction that comes from having conquered something challenging, a lesson that will serve them well into adolescence and beyond.
Sources and recommended reading:
- Growing Up Brave by Donna B. Pincus. 2012. Dr. Pincus is the creator of the Child Anxiety Network.
- The Anxiety Cure for Kids by Spencer, DuPont, & DuPont. 2014.
- What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid's Guide to Overcoming Anxiety by Dawn Huebner. 2006. Listen to her TedTalk, Rethinking anxiety: Learning to face fear.
- View this webinar, ABCs of Fear and Anxiety in Children, featuring John Piacentiniis, professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the UCLA School of Medicine.
About the author
Elizabeth Drumm is the Lower School counselor at The Summit Country Day School. She has a master’s degree in school counseling from Xavier University and a bachelor’s degree in psychology and German from The Ohio State University.